The Great Class Debate in Acting

So everyone and their mother has waded in on the Great Acting Class Debate and I guess I’ve ranted about it in my head enough to feel compelled to chip in.

I was reading this Guardian article and what really annoyed me was the utter lack of separation between the issue of onscreen stories, and the issue of actors’ backgrounds. Of course these are highly interrelated issues, but conflating them is problematic.
Everyone seems to agree that the classism rife in the British acting industry is a terrible thing, but there seems to be a default argument that goes something along the lines of: “We know it’s terrible that there aren’t more working class actors, but it’s not our fault, the Great British Public just prefer period dramas and other posh shows, but we really should make the effort to make more socially worthy working class dramas.”

Am I the only one seeing two massive problems with this? First, the assumption that working class actors can only play working class characters. Second, the idea that anything “working class” is boring and worthy — serious dramas about people having arguments in kitchens — that we ‘should’ commission, should watch, in much the same way we know we should eat our vegetables and floss our teeth.

Challenging and combating these false assumptions that should be our top priority, because what point is there in helping working class actors go to drama school if they’re going to graduate into a world where it’s taken for granted they can only play working class characters having arguments in kitchens? Now some iconic working class roles have been created by actors from a working class background (Julie Walters in Educating Rita is one example the press seem very keen on) and that’s wonderful. But it feels like they’re treated like zoo animals, and not as what they are, which is simply actors. Why shouldn’t an actor who grew up on a council estate in Peckham play a Lord on Downton Abbey? It’s just acting. Being working class and playing working class is not less acting than being working class and playing posh, and the assumption that working class actors can in essence only play themselves (when posh actors can play anything*) is demeaning and condescending. I might be being idealistic, but we should be striving to reach a point where all actors can be considered for all roles, with casting decisions being made purely on talent.

The emphasis too on opening up a number of drama school places to working class actors, while certainly helpful, ignores the increasingly useful alternate avenues for actors shut out of the traditional system. I’ve long been a supporter of TriForce, who run the truly democratic** MonologueSlam, probably one of the best avenues for unknown or new actors to get seen by industry people. Compare the diversity (in all ways) in a MonologueSlam audition room with one at RADA, it’s startling. Maybe the solution isn’t to try to fix places like RADA (though that certainly needs to be done too), but to be less reliant on it in the first place?

And really class is such a nebulous, complex subject to begin with. Far be it from me to judge how anyone else self-defines, but it drives me bonkers when people who grew up in Islington and went to private school and now work in the arts and live in £5m houses bang on about how they’re proud to be working class because their great-grandfather went down the mines. My own family history is a snakes and ladders quagmire of social mobility. I’ve been rich and I’ve been homeless. I was raised by academics yet left formal schooling at 13. I’m only now unpacking the complexities of my own privilege.

People rise and fall through the class system and each movement carries changes. Social mobility or the desire for it is massively frowned upon (look at all the class hatred aimed at the Middletons), but sometimes people genuinely don’t fit in with their own environment. My father came from a working class Yorkshire family and was an outsider due to his sensitive, bookish nature, high IQ and passion for classical music. Then he went to Cambridge where he was bullied into hiding his accent and roots. The social mobility going to grammar school and Cambridge granted didn’t just give him material advantages, it gave him a life where he actually fit in and was among like-minded souls. But at the price of having to change himself. And really that’s fucked up in itself, because appreciating classical music and books shouldn’t be a posh person thing. One of the brilliant things about the arts is that it is traditionally classless (part of why the current Eton-invasion and class war is so upsetting) – we’re in the arts because we don’t want to be defined by things like our social class.

But you know, I look at this debate and I honestly have no idea where I fit in. Am I working class because my parents were working class? Am I middle class because my dad went  to university and had a white collar job? When my family combusted and I ended up homeless, did I keep my class status or lose it? If you’re born upper class, are you permanently upper class? How do you define a child’s social class to begin with? If a child’s social class is defined by their family, what’s their class if they don’t have a family? Or are all displaced youth underclass by definition? What about posh girls who run away from home? What if they run away and never go home, live on the streets, become hookers, but still have titles and family estates somewhere? Are you still working class even if you’re a multimillionaire movie star? Is your class defined by your accent or your bank balance? Can people truly ever transcend their class barriers?

*The Guardian quotes Nina Gold as saying Eddie Redmayne couldn’t play a working class character even though it would be “fun” for him, which, why? Okay there’s a valid argument about not taking away the few precious roles that actually do go to working class actors, but fundamentally anyone should be able to play anything.

**No application forms, no submitting your CV, anyone can audition, jump up and perform in front of the entire room for 60 seconds and the best performances win.


1 Comment

  1. Really excellent piece.
    “Class” is a diversion that makes for great sound bites and news copy. But really it is about economics and the opportunities open to those who can afford to follow a particular path. And it applies to very many professions, not just acting.


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